About the only thing President Obama and I have in common other than the fact that we were both born in the United States -- is that both of us have been grilled by Helen Thomas.
It happened to me only once. It won't happen to Obama, or any other president, again. And that's sad.
Thomas, long the queen of the White House Press Room, was abruptly turned out to pasture a couple of weeks ago when she made the mistake of answering a question instead of asking one, and answering it stupidly.
Somebody asked her what she thought of the situation in Israel, and she said they (meaning the Israelis) should all "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home," to Poland, or Germany, or the United States, or wherever.
It was an answer that might have made a little sense, and would certainly have been a lot more politically correct, back when Thomas started in the news biz in the 1950s. Israel was still new then, and the idea that a Jewish homeland could be imposed on top of land that had been home to a subset of Arabs known as Palestinians for centuries was not yet established as being practical.
Now, I always thought that America was the best place on Earth for any dispossessed minority group to find refuge. In fact, that's sort of what America is for. And if people keen to found a New Zion had established it in say, Montana, the world would be a lot more peaceful today.
But nobody asked me. Not even Thomas. And now, more than half a century on, the Jews who live in Israel are home. They aren't leaving. They sure as anything aren't going back to the lands of Central and Eastern Europe, where they were all but exterminated by the Nazis as the rest of the world turned its head.
But, back to me and Helen.
It was early 1999, and I was speaking at the National Press Club. Well, I was speaking in a room that belonged to the National Press Club, which had been hired for the evening by the Society of Professional Journalists for an awards banquet.
The award was for me. It was the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writers, established to find someone who was a really good editorial writer and pay him to not write editorials for a while. So I wrote a book about agriculture, and federal policies that pay farmers not to grow food.
Despite the venue, the only two big names that night were Michael Gartner, Pulitzer winner and former big-time editor, who was the paid speaker, and Thomas. My name clearly wasn't much of a draw. Gartner made his speech, shook my hand and fled to catch his flight back to Iowa. I made my speech and took questions. Thomas had one. What, she wanted to know, did we Middle Americans (I was from Kansas then) think of all this ongoing fuss about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr?
I thought, I said, that the fight had nothing, really, to do with anybody's sex life, or even lying about same. It was a bald-faced attempt to frustrate Clinton's policy agenda by crippling him with personal scandal and lawsuits. And, I said, Middle America knew it.
The only debate, I said, was between people in every section of the country who thought this politics by other means was a good thing and those who thought it was a bad thing.
Think I got away with that? Not on your life.
"Well," Thomas shot back, "what do you think? Is it good or bad?"
It's awful, I said. I think Starr's investigation is a clear and present danger to our constitutional system of government and that any newspaper story that mentioned his name without including the label "paid agent of big tobacco" was committing journalistic malpractice.
That seemed to satisfy her.
I was the pundit then, and she the reporter. She pinned me down on what I thought, and gave no clue as to what she thought. It would have been better for everyone if it had stayed that way.